News Article

Less is More

Engineering Students Design Tiny House

Minimalism is the latest trend in pop culture, with the less is more mindset driving the tiny house or mini house movement. People are choosing to downsize their living spaces for a variety of reasons: finances, ecological desire to reduce waste or conserve energy. Shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunters have also put the spotlight on the trend. 

At Oaks Christian, mechanical engineering students are also jumping on the trend with the motivation of helping others. Last spring, students submitted 14 different designs for a mini house in a Shark Tank like presentation in class. Once the winning design was selected (modified from aspects of all the designs), students started building what they call the Container Home.  

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Made from two 20-foot containers, it measures 320 feet square. Students engineered and designed the electrical and plumbing systems. The kitchen has a full-size refrigerator, microwave, dishwasher, bathroom, office space and bedroom that fits a queen-size bed.  Fabrication is mostly done, and the home is now awaiting final inspection before it is moved to its location in the Sequoias. 

The inspiration for the tiny home comes from the wildfires that ravaged forest homes in the Sequoia Complex Fire over a year ago, including Gillis-Smith's cabin and artist studio.  Using his personal loss and experience, combined with this educator mindset, he proposed to the class the idea of building a small, portable home as temporary housing for displaced people. Such prototype could also be used in urban areas where there is a housing shortage, or possible housing for the homeless. 

“In fire recovery people may be improperly insured and need a place to live while they are rebuilding. They aren’t really homeless, but that could lead to people living in unsafe conditions just because of unaffordability,” he said. “Maybe that same model can be applied to actual homelessness or low-income housing.” 

The concept of using this type of housing isn't unique. Right here in Southern California, the City of Los Angeles has the largest tiny house village for the homeless in the nation. Similar enclaves exist in Texas, Florida, Colorado, Michigan, and Oregon, to name a few states. But what is unique is the opportunity for high school students to be a part of such an endeavor.  

Whether it is building tiny homes for municipalities or partnering with companies that contract student labor to build them, Gillis-Smith hopes to construct more than one house to give more students the opportunity to be part of the project. Not every student who starts on the tiny house will finish it, if they graduate or only take one engineering class.  

“This could be a multi-year capstone project. The longest part is the permit process which can get bogged down, but after that, things fly,” he said, “There is value in being part of an ongoing collaborative project. In engineering you always work in groups, and basically when you think about it, life is a group project, so these are good skills to learn.” 

One thing for sure, when the Container Home gets moved up north (after the winter snows melt), he hopes to safely bring all the students who did the original design work, as well as the ones who worked on it since then, to the Sequoias to celebrate the achievement.